Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak is the story of a girl starting high school with a secret. Aside from calling 9-1-1 on big summer party, getting lots of kids in trouble and committing social suicide, she tells no one. This isn’t a secret that gets buried under her normal life. It changes everything.
This book was published in 1999 and later adapted into a movie. It’s fairly well known, but I don’t know how far that goes to get it in the hands of young readers. Often labeled pornography, the ALA ranked Speak 60 on their 2000-2009 list of most banned books, which is dumb.
Melinda begins ninth grade as the most hated girl in her high school. Food is thrown at her in the cafeteria. Books are knocked out of her arms. She can’t speak the truth so she mostly stops speaking. Her old friends refuse to talk to her; nobody really notices her silence. Readers alone know what’s going on inside Melinda’s troubled, traumatized mind. Alienated, her wry commentary on high school’s absurdities add an amusing element that works here without trivializing the story.
Melinda has much to say and yet keeps quiet, waiting for it all to go away. Everyone in this story – teachers, parents, classmates – is too self-involved to realize something is wrong. She’s alone inside her mind and quickly slips from being a good student to withdrawn and failing. Skipping class, biting her lips till they bleed and scratching up her wrists with a paperclip isn’t helping.
I just want to sleep. The whole point of not talking about it, of silencing the memory, is to make it go away. It won’t. I’ll need brain surgery to cut it out of my head.
This is a pretty powerful book about getting through. Melinda’s inner world feels so authentic you become invested in her getting to a better place. The sparse dialogue and escalation of her withdrawn behavior throughout the school year probably doesn’t sound like a page-turner, but it is. You wonder how much harder it’s going to get before something cracks. An art class assignment to draw a tree occupies her jammed mind when she’s not hiding in a closet or wondering how some people manage to make their bedrooms look like them.
A coma would be nice. Or amnesia. Anything, just to get rid of this, these thoughts, whispers in my head. Did he rape my head, too?
Speak is one of the best young adult books I’ve read. It’s not just about one terrible incident, but coping with deep depression, alienation and trauma. I bet many young readers can relate to Melinda’s clan-less sense of isolation and feeling like the only one who finds high school pointless.
The is my second Laurie Halse Anderson read. I loved The Perfect Knife of Memory, but Speak is a new favorite. It has a message [hint: see title] and drives home that you really don’t know what people are going through. Drastic changes in behavior are a blinking neon red flag, but Melinda completely shuts down. Because of this, her first person narrative is uniquely intimate, immediate and real.
I skimmed over the extras in the back of my copy, I think intended for educators or book clubs. Anderson mentions she was speaking at a high school once when a young man stood up and questioned the incident in the book because he didn’t get how the incident in the book was a rape. Imagine the horror of hearing this, not from some jerk trying to give her hard time, but a high school student ignorant about what rape is. That’s what’s shocking, not this book.
I recommend this to anyone
eager to read about rape! who’s a sucker for a compelling story about a survivor with a head full of thoughts and weirdness.